For the spring break of her thirty-eighth year, Rebecca Park went to Barcelona in search of a fuck.
That was her joke, anyway. She told it compulsively.
“I’m going to Spain,” she said, smiling hopelessly. “To find a man with whom I can be unfaithful. Hopefully a Spaniard, but honestly, I’d even take a Canadian.”
In response she received mirthless laughter, followed by delicate suggestions that avoided the subject of infidelity. Why Spain? Why cross the Atlantic for the five dismal mid-February days that Rebecca’s university chose for its spring break? Rebecca’s specialization was nineteenth-century women writers of the American West, but she had never seen the Pacific Ocean or Taos or Yosemite or Yellowstone. She should visit a place that made sense. If Europe was non-negotiable, better to choose some cold, dignified place: London, Edinburgh, Copenhagen if she wanted exotic.
But Rebecca would not be moved. She wanted Barcelona. Ciutat Vella, the neighborhood was called. Old City. Gothic Quarter. The very heart, where the medieval streets ate themselves like snakes and veiny spires twisted into the lavender sky. A dream of the place had wedged in her brain like an ice pick: a lit square in front of an ancient church, silver glinting off pavement, cobblestones, moon, a man’s white teeth.
“I think Spain’s a great idea,” said Pat, her husband. He squeezed her shoulders, one of his special squeezes: friendly, caring, the opposite of initiatory. “A little time alone will do you good.”
“Yeah,” she said limply.
Pat turned her and kissed her temple. She leaned forward, wrapped her arms around him, and kissed him just beneath his left eye, where his freckles were densest. Rebecca loved their forever promise of youth. Hers had disappeared by her fifteenth birthday.
Rebecca traced her husband’s frustrating beauty—light blue eyes set into a remnant of an epicanthic fold, broad heart-shaped face, the freckles covering his nose, cheeks, and shoulders—to his Korean paternal grandfather, the man who had given Pat, and thus her, his surname. She had seen plenty of photos of Pat’s grandfather in old age, a smiling grandpa in a plaid shirt and double-bridge glasses, but only one of him as a young man. He stood on a grassy knoll in a white collared shirt tucked into khaki pants, staring solemnly. Even under the old-fashioned clothes Rebecca could see the fine lines of his body. Behind him, his wife, in a print dress, white heels, and what looked like a black illusion veil, reached for him, but he didn’t see her. His face was as closed and lovely as a mask.
Pat stepped out of her embrace and brushed himself off automatically, as he always did.
He was wearing one of his work shirts. Why had it come home with him from school? At some point in the last five years—why hadn’t she marked the exact day?—Pat had bought a score of cheap sherbet colored button-downs at Sears. Once he had taken some pride in his clothing, but now he hated to wake early. His solution was to adopt a daily uniform of pleated khakis and a t-shirt. When he arrived at campus, he just threw a work shirt on top. The ensemble looked frankly bizarre on his swimmer’s body, particularly because he always buttoned the work shirts all the way up.
“I don’t want to be conscious for even a moment longer than necessary,” he told Rebecca when she asked. He let out a bark of laughter. “This just streamlines things.”
How had Pat become the kind of man for whom careful daily dressing is too heavy a burden? Like Rebecca, he had a PhD in English, but he had never even applied for a teaching position. He had followed her from Texas, where they had earned their degrees together, to her job in Ohio—the job she had then believed to be her launching pad—and taken an administrative position as an academic advisor to undergraduates at the university where Rebecca taught.
The students revered Pat for his easygoing nature, effortless coolness (bourbon in the bottom desk drawer, framed Winograd print on the wall, portrait of Emerson tattooed on his right forearm), and obvious sexiness. Rebecca had seen postings online, female students cooing over her husband’s smile, his kindness, even the freckles Rebecca regarded as her own:
Oh my god, whenever I go in to talk to him about whatever, I look into those baby blues and just forget everything. Dreamy isn’t the word. That particular comment had been liked two hundred and fifty-seven times.
If she had ever received this kind of attention from her students, Rebecca was sure she would have long ago bedded some kid and been forced to leave the university in disgrace. Pat was strangely impervious to their lust. If anything, he was a little annoyed when his colleagues teased him about it, but Pat’s public annoyance was sunnier and more enjoyable than most people’s best moods. His coworkers loved him, too. They had special nicknames for him and gave him new bourbon for every birthday.
If only they knew, Rebecca thought often, how little use he had for any of them, how thin a tether tied him to his desk.
Pat hated his job. This had become his trump card in the argument they’d been having for thirteen years, the one where he announced that he was good for nothing, worthless, capable of only the most basic drone labor. No matter how fitfully Rebecca protested this—no matter how many tears she cried, how many proofs of his brilliance she gave (hadn’t he won an award from the university, a commendation for excellence? Were his walls not papered with heartfelt student thank-yous? Had his salary not steadily grown?), no matter how many vacations they took together, palpably enjoying their combined income—Pat always threw his stupid, meaningless job in her face.
“You’re a prof, and I’m just some pool boy for rich kids.” Rebecca wondered if he had worked on this phrase, written it down and tweaked the wording for maximum pain. “It’s impossible for you to understand.”
The taunt stunned Rebecca, capsized her under a rogue wave of guilt. All she could do was blink her wet eyes in her hot face, take deep heaving breaths, and wait for him to calm down. Finally his eerie checked-out smile would blossom again and she could exhale and they returned to their routine.
In a way she was grateful for the hated shirts. They reminded her not to feel what she automatically felt around Pat, what she had always felt: a glittering urge, a flowering dirty thought, a vivid image of fucking him. Her useless, ceaseless desire. Since the second year of their relationship they had had sex perhaps three times a year, only when he wanted it, only how he wanted it. Rebecca had done everything in her power to divine the problem and solve it. And she had failed and failed and failed.
For years Rebecca had had a low-grade case of the flu, fevers, an on-and-off runny nose, a chronic ailment that could act up at a moment’s notice. Her back often hurt for no apparent reason, and her body was always spotted by a handful of inexplicable bruises that Pat never saw. In the early years of their marriage her strategy had been to traipse around the house nude, forcing him to see her body. Once she had called him into the bathroom to examine her, hoping against hope.
Pat had turned her body over and over in his hands like a veterinarian examining a horse, pivoted each of her thighs outwards without once glancing up into her crotch.
“You’re all right,” he said, tousling her hair.
It was the worst in the early years, right after Austin. Rebecca took a lectureship at a small college in the Bronx. They shared a narrow studio in Queens with a kitchenette at one end and a queen futon on the floor in the other. She was exhausted, teaching five or six courses a semester and earning less than her department’s receptionist. She snapped and cried easily, always needed soothing and holding. Pat hadn’t found any job at all, and was tutoring neighborhood kids for money that disappeared as soon as he made it. Ineffable tension hung in the air for weeks, thick and yellow.
Queens was where Rebecca learned about the deep pits into which Pat often sank. His depressions lasted days, sometimes weeks. A haze seemed to have permanently descended on their studio. It took all of Rebecca’s strength to lift him out, hand over hand over hand. Their happiness became the two of them sitting on the edge above the pit, panting.
But sometimes Pat wanted to stay in his pit for a while before she was allowed to pull him out. He fought her, swatting away her outstretched arm, his eyes wrinkling tears as he curled fetal into the futon.
Those were the worst times. The things he would say to her. The apartment seemed to be on fire. She couldn’t breathe. She paced the narrow box of floor beside the stove, counting backwards. When she ran out of air, Rebecca fled the studio into the hall bathroom they shared with another tenant, pushed the stupid button lock, and curled into her own fetal position, rocking back and forth, humming tunelessly and calling up a progression of bright happinesses from her childhood, frayed at the edges from overhandling.
Thus, her joke about finding a lover was equal parts true and false, a mean stamp of desperation she would show anyone who looked. She repeated her husband’s encouragement, a final punchline. “He even wants me to go! He thinks it’s a great idea!”
They listened politely, their eyes showing animal terror: let it not touch me, they thought. Her sadness.
“You must be careful, my dear,” trilled Frederick Møller, a tiny spry queen jointly appointed in Gender Studies and Art History. “You might get what you wish for.”
She made a reservation at Casa Lleó, a new hotel near the Plaça George Orwell. The photographs on the hotel website were appropriately sinister: red brocade, black velvet, a long chrome case of objets d’art for sale.
On the first leg of her journey Rebecca marveled at how well she was doing, not tired at all, which she attributed to her diligent sipping of water all the way across the Atlantic. The feeling of wellness ebbed in the Zurich airport. Rebecca had expected the very sight of Europe, even just an airport, to lift her spirits, to fill her. Instead she felt gnawingly hungry, greasy, heavy. She slept through the second flight and woke in a Spanish airport as high and white as an unfinished cathedral.
The bad feeling eased somewhat as the airport bus pulled into a neighborhood of dignified apartment buildings, where fashionable locals pushed carts of babies and groceries past little trees growing in squares of dirt. Rebecca closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the bus had arrived at the Plaça de Catalunya. Here, indisputably, was her Europe: statues on towers, tiny high shuttered windows, the fluting sounds of lives that had nothing in common with her own.
Rebecca disembarked into a happy din, punctuated by buzzing scooters and widows muttering in Catalan. She lugged her little suitcase down the Rambla, pinning her floppy purse against her hip with her elbow. Her money, passport, and credit cards hung obediently around her neck in a fabric envelope. Barcelona is populated by very skilled professional thieves, the guidebook warned sternly on its first page. Guard your belongings. Be alert. Carry your purse in both hands. Use a money belt and leave your passport in your hotel safe. Rebecca had never been robbed, but she felt that it was likely, even unavoidable, that at least once in her life she would be someone’s victim.
She wore a green sweater over a lavender shell and brown suede leggings tucked into pewter leather ankle boots. Everyone else on her flights, even the Europeans, had been dressed in some variant of pajamas, but Rebecca knew that an aging size fourteen with a Louise Brooks haircut had to be tailored at all times. Around her, gypsy men hocked whirring toys that flew high in the air.
PUT ME IN YOUR MOUTH AND I WILL CHANGE YOUR VOICE, a handwritten sign promised.
Casa Lleó, when she found it, was a dim box under a gothic overhang. She tripped over the threshold and fell, cursing. She had dabbed herself with tinted moisturizer in the airport bathroom, carefully patching ivory cream over her mottled pink neck. Her trip to Barcelona was supposed to be a time out of time in which she was beautiful all day every day. Not even one moment could be spent in sweaty disarray, or the spell would be broken.
“Are you all right, senyora?” It was a young man’s voice, effortlessly kind. Rebecca jumped. “Oh, I startle you. I’m sorry.”
“I’m fine, thank you,” Rebecca said, not daring to look at him until she had collected herself. At least her suitcase and traveling bag matched; this should mark her as worthy, dignified. She shook her head so that her two front pieces of hair fell against her cheekbones, discreetly wiped under her eyes, and rose.
Before her stood a bearded man perhaps an inch below her own height, dressed in a black cashmere sweater and dark green slacks. His hair was black, too—bits of it caught blue highlights from the gleam of a nearby lamp—and although he was young his hairline had begun to recede, giving the impression that the beard was a sort of consolation. Heavy black glasses framed his green eyes.
“Hello,” he said. “I am Jordi Calix. Welcome to Casa Lleó.”
“Rebecca Park,” she said, extending her hand.
He ignored her hand and leaned towards her, his lips pursed. She was confused, then thrilled, and finally embarrassed. He was embracing her, he was kissing her, but it was not romantic. It was European. She held very still as Jordi Calix put his hands on her shoulders to give her the traditional greeting. He kissed her left cheek and then her right. She thought of Pat’s friendly squeeze with something like pain. Then she remembered to curve her body, to brush her lips softly against the soft fur of the stranger’s beard, as she had seen in films.
Jordi checked her in and carried her bags up a small staircase, intermittently activating lights by tapping a series of white buttons with his right hand. When they reached number seven, her room, Jordi unlocked the door with a grand brass key. A double bed was made with plum velvet and silver satin pillowcases and lit by a cluster of filament light bulbs gathered in a great glass globe. Jordi showed Rebecca how a bone-colored dial on the far wall turned these brighter or dimmer. He gestured to extra plum blankets and towels. He turned and stood facing her, his back to the door.
“Please rest,” he said. “I know you are tired from your journey. And call me if you need anything, anything at all.” Incredibly, he reached for her, and they performed the embrace again.
When he left Rebecca felt as guilty and thrilled as if she’d hired a gigolo. She plugged her music player into the little set of speakers provided for this purpose and chose a Joni Mitchell album. She had always hated Joni Mitchell, until six months ago, when suddenly Joni Mitchell became the only music she could stand.
Rebecca and Pat met at a party given by Gina Marchand, a member of Rebecca’s doctoral cohort about whom Rebecca harbored mixed feelings. Gina’s kindness could be counted on—she always allowed Rebecca to use her copy code and sometimes surprised her with a coffee—but she was also everything Rebecca hoped not to be: demure, constitutionally shy, plain, sensible. Rebecca had come to graduate school to chase the flickering frontier dream that had haunted her since childhood; Gina had decided to pursue a PhD after many years of deliberation, in which time she had completed an MA while teaching second grade full time. Her specialty was the long eighteenth century. “But,” she confided to Rebecca near the close of their second year, “I think what I’m most interested in is composition and rhetoric.”
Comp rhet. Only a practical, dreamless soul like Gina could be most interested in this most dire of topics, this most miserable of academic jobs, the business of theorizing and explaining why every successive class of freshmen was worse at writing and more resistant to instruction. Soon all new PhDs would labor at comp rhet, in an underclass segregated from the tenured and the accomplished. There were enough special people, enough beautiful readings of canonical texts; everyone else had to get in line. This, Rebecca had learned in two years.
So twenty-five year old Rebecca, still fresh from South Texas, published (in just three tiny magazines, but still) poet, went to Gina’s party wearing a new silver dress purchased guiltily, her hair in the reliable little chignon that she had convinced herself was Mary Austinesque. Privately, Rebecca believed herself thus coiffed to slightly resemble Austin in the photograph she had taken as a member of Blackburn College’s 1888 graduating class.
It was a photograph of ten people, five women, five men. Austin stood to the far left of the frame, dressed in white, in a high-necked, long-sleeved fin de siècle gown. All the women were dressed similarly, but for Rebecca there was only one face in the image: Austin’s questioning, displeased expression. How Rebecca had pored over the photograph, sizing it up and down on her laptop screen, searching out the small details of the massive corsage that bloomed like a wound on Austin’s small chest. At first she had taken the two jagged white rectangles that jutted above Austin’s head for some sort of hair ornament, but then she saw that they were the panels of a screen, or perhaps the panes of a window, or maybe some kind of painting—anything but what they seemed to be.
She printed the photograph on fine matte paper at the copy shop and hung it in a wooden frame on the wall above her desk for all to see. When she began her PhD, Rebecca decided to stop hiding her embarrassing fancies—after all, what was a PhD but a passion project, and what could keep her going better than a reminder of the world she was trying to enter, the dream she would wish into reality? In her mid-twenties, this insight had felt like adulthood; in her late thirties, it seemed cruelly stupid.
Why had she even bothered to dress up for Gina’s party? For whose benefit had she worn that slinking, clinging dress, ignoring the way it made her tummy look like a lamé dinner roll? She knew who would be there: Jack, the art history student with the sad curtain of bleached hair, always moping over Tamara de Lempicka. Emilie, the Dutch girl obsessed with the Gothics. Millerton, who did something with postmodernism that Rebecca didn’t want to understand. Bright friendly Gina, helpful and trapped, whose goodness was a kind of prison. Branden, with his waxy creep’s face and staring eyes. The usual damned.
After Rebecca had collected her beer and handful of pita chips—after she had resigned herself to comforting Jack and trying not to envy Emilie, the purple-haired sylph—after she had neatly avoided Branden, whose fifteenth article had just been accepted for publication in an august feminist journal in which he was to be the first male author—then, there was Pat. Leaning in the corner, staring at his phone, wearing a studded leather motorcycle jacket, white undershirt, and cuffed white jeans. His hair was slicked up into a kind of pompadour, his blue eyes were dark and—was it possible?— almost Asian, and his lips were as plush and full as carved hand soaps. Rebecca stopped five feet in front of him and openly stared. It was so rare to find male beauty in their miserable, mincing little world.
If he had never looked up—if he had only kept staring at his phone, unaware, or uninterested—Pat would have lived in Rebecca’s memory forever, an image to return to when she needed to escape into a frenzy of masturbation or the other necessary activities of dissociative desire that helped her to survive. If she had only ever just seen him standing there like that, right leg cocked against the wall, his shined green leather shoes perfect beneath the spotless white jeans. He would have still been with her forever. Sometimes, in her darkest moments, Rebecca wondered if this was how it should have been. If she would have had more pleasure, less pain.
But the beautiful man had looked up from his phone. At her.
“Hi,” he said. “Where the hell did you come from?”
“I could ask you the same question,” she said.
“Well,” he said. “I’m from Minnesota. I mean, I was born in Montana, but Minnesota is where I grew up.”
Rebecca had given him her difficult little life story, but stories didn’t matter until much, much later. Not until after they fled the party in under an hour, Rebecca giddily ignoring Gina’s hurt expression, not until after they spent three hours and too much money at the nice bars on South Congress, not until after she followed Pat up the rickety narrow stairs of the apartment he shared with a man who worked nights. Not until after, in his little bedroom, that monkish chamber with one lamp, a map on the wall, and a soft futon dressed in gold sheets, they wove their bodies together.
Rebecca woke after dark. She shook her head to chase away the sadness, performed her complex ablutions of concealment and light direction, and went out into the city. Restaurant signs and clusters of skinny, smoking young people, many in strange saggy-crotched pants, lit the old streets. An absurd number of Australians yelled. Restaurants offered dubious paellas, hamburgers, grainy smoothies, waffles drenched in Nutella. Rebecca’s head pounded. Her heel caught on a cobblestone and her ankle turned out. If I fall again, she thought, my trip is ruined, and even after she righted herself she felt like crying. Where was the city’s secret heart, the quiet purple place?
Rebecca was headed to a restaurant her guidebook described as a hushed and sacred space, serving the freshest ingredients from the Mercat de La Boqueria in novel, charming combinations. She had studied her map before leaving. But after forty minutes of walking she was quite lost, and it was coming up on eleven-thirty. Spaniards ate dinner late, but how late? Restaurants were closing; all around her was the grating sound of metal awnings being pulled over storefronts. She made a final attempt, found herself in a deserted dark street that seemed to narrow as she followed it, and finally acquiesced to her pounding heart and crossed back into the well-lit square near the hotel.
She slunk inside a reasonable-looking restaurant and waited for the maître d’. He appeared: slender, smiling, olive-skinned.
“Hello,” he said, automatically in English. “For dinner?”
Rebecca nodded, both annoyed by and grateful for this assumption.
“Please wait for the rest of your party at the bar,” he said, already turning away.
“It’s just me,” she said. “I’m alone.”
“Oh,” he said. “Please wait while I find you table. At bar.”
She went to the bar and mumbled “Copa de vino tinto, por favor,” at the bartender. He silently put a glass down in front of her.
Rebecca cast her gaze around the dining room. She was probably the oldest person there and the only one alone. Her eyes settled on a girl at a table of eight people in the far corner of the room. She had wide brown eyes, a red-painted mouth, and a carefully arranged head of tawny hair. Two long corkscrews hung on either side of her oval face like sexy peyos. The rest lay down her back in a golden cape, the ends shaped into soft hooks. How long had it taken her to arrange it? She spoke with gusto, gesturing animatedly, throwing back her head to emit a long, piercing laugh.
The girl stood to make her way across the restaurant to the bathroom. She wore a tiny red satin dress and flesh-colored platform shoes, like tall hooves tied to her little feet. She was probably nineteen.
Rebecca remembered nineteen. She had not felt young then. She had never, ever felt young.
The girl passed Rebecca, calling back to her table, “I totally want to hear the end of that story, Professor Williams!”
Her farm-flattened accent was chillingly familiar. Every table in the restaurant, she saw now, held these groupings: one old man—bespectacled, potbellied, white-bearded, utility-vested—surrounded by young girls, like a gathering of many-wived Biblical kings. Rebecca turned towards the girl’s table, trying to camouflage the movement, and recognized Ed Williams.
Rebecca’s university ran a very profitable study abroad program in Barcelona. The Barcelona Faculty, as they were called, were a cadre of tenured gray-faced letches in white shirts and many-pocketed khaki vests and horn glasses. They gave good salty ex-pat sage, slinging basement Castellano and morsels of Hemingway and Orwell on blastingly hot walks around the Plaça d'Espanya, pontificating about Franco and Lorca over cheap rioja. Their knowledge of Spanish history and culture was anecdotal, but they could drink for hours without slurring.
A handful of unhappy recent PhDs did all of the actual teaching and grading, clutching at the idea that one of the old bastards might finally die or retire to Portugal. They were perpetually trying another year on the job market that had rejected them three, four, five times, crossing fingers for a job at a South Korean startup university or in oil-rich Alberta or a hideous Tennessee hamlet. They lived in the sad little suburbs north of Barcelona, rode the buses like vigilant ghosts, Skyped with distant fiancés every twelve hours, got by on credit card debt, and barely learned the names of the interchangeable students who shaded in and out every twelve weeks. In some jerk admin’s idea of Old World charm, they were called Apprentice Lecturers. Rebecca had met a handful of them on their perfunctory yearly visit to the university.
“I just feel like there’s real potential here for immersive language instruction, for curriculum innovation, but our hands are tied,” confided a pear-shaped girl in a much-washed navy pantsuit. “I feel like I’m not facilitating a really life-changing overseas experience for the undergrads. That’s hard for me.”
Rebecca hadn’t known whether to hug the girl or smack her. She had one of those names parents give daughters of whom they expect little: Deedee, maybe, or Tami. She was not at the restaurant.
Despite, or more likely because of these pedagogical deficiencies, the Barcelona program was Rebecca’s university’s most popular study abroad. The classes were not hard. Barcelona offered plenty of cheap flights to other European capitals. At the end the semester the students returned to Ohio with a computer full of cute pictures and cool stories about sucking face with retired Israeli snipers at the disco. Everyone got an A.
That she had wandered into their hangout so guilelessly seemed to Rebecca a sign of her own failure of imagination. She felt like crying, and would have, if the maître d’ had not fetched her to her table.
“Where are you coming from, if I may ask?”
She looked up at him, momentarily hopeful.
“The States,” she said.
“No,” he said. “I think it is Sweden!”
What was she supposed to do with that?
On her walk back to Casa Lleó, Rebecca bought a beer from a frightened man in a blue-lit store. She held it against her body as she entered the hotel, not wanting Jordi to see, but the reception desk was empty.
In her room, Rebecca dimmed the clustered lightbulbs to a glistening wince. Pat had responded to her short email.
Hi Baby, Gr8 to hear you are there safe :-). Hope you have lots of fun. P
He always wrote to her with the same weird salutation—he never called Rebecca “baby” aloud—and the same juvenile abbreviations. The smiley annoyed her, always. Hadn’t everyone else gotten rid of the hyphen nose?
Rebecca pried off her outfit, put on the billowing silk pajamas Pat had given her a few Christmases ago, and popped the beer. It was a double-size, what she had once called a tallboy, back when she was an undergraduate at Trinity University with a lace-edged camisole for every night of the weekend. She drank, letting her mind drift, touching herself absently through her unsexy white cotton panties. She was horny, of course. She was always horny.
Horny. The terrible little-boy word for the state in which she spent all her days. Men had engorged and tumescent, lush Latinate words. But women could only go so far before edging into slut territory. Horny, randy, hot for it.
Dying for it.
Longing. She could say that she was longing. Or wanting. Desiring.
In the full flush of it Rebecca didn’t need the suffix. She felt like desire itself. It settled pink in her limbs and face and lips and neck. She downed the rest of the beer, huffed a breath, spread her legs, and lay the fingers of her right hand across her labia. With her left she opened the website where her undergraduates spent all their time.
For a long, long time, she had only masturbated to Pat, summoning up the tender intensity of the sex they had before their wedding. His refusals were made all the more painful by the fact that he was an astonishing lover, seemingly psychic. He knew exactly how to pry joy from her body and give it back with his mouth, hands, cock. For years she had simply conjured these encounters in her mind’s eye, refusing to be unfaithful even there.
In the fifth year of her near-celibacy her husband’s imagined face had become too painful. So she had dreamt only his body, but this had backfired. Soon she couldn’t picture his face when she masturbated, only a black box. If she tried to peel it back, tears came. That bottomless kind of crying, no good.
So she switched to actors, feeling cheesy. But there weren’t many who did the trick, and over the years she had watched those who did age out of her realm of interest. This worried her. Was she a version of the Barcelona Faculty after all, obsessed with young bodies and taut skin? No—it was just her husband she wanted, just Pat. Pat then, at Gina’s, or Pat now, any time, even in one of those damn shirts.
But she couldn’t have him. So in the last year Rebecca had begun to do something that she thought both harmless and vaguely criminal: fixate on her students. On the one or two in particular who surprised and touched her with talent and assiduousness. Her current object was Bobby, a boy from a dairy farm near Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Bobby’s obsession with Bret Harte had led him to stay on at the university to complete a MA as her advisee. He was shy, bright, and handsome in an unstudied way, with thick blond hair, wide green eyes, and a lanky, untaught body. A naïf.
Rebecca could find Bobby so easily online. They all posted hundreds of photographs of themselves there. He was so touching in his simple cowboy enthusiasm for the west, had taken so many pictures of himself in hats and boots, of the summer he had spent working at a Wyoming dude ranch. Of the brand he had received on his right ass cheek, which he proudly displayed in a series of photographs taken in someone’s dorm room, his lively face turned over his red flannelled shoulder, the firm flatness of his ass swelling up below his lowered jeans.
It would make more sense, Rebecca thought, if her fantasies about Bobby cast her in a dominant role, if she had dreamt of manipulating him. Forcing him. Come into my office, Bobby, I have something grave to discuss with you. Right here, under the photograph of Mary Austin.
Or maybe not. She wasn’t a dummy, not after all that reading. She knew that fantasies of submission were simply a way of ventriloquizing her own forceful desire, making it palpable, translating it into the language of the patriarchy.
The thought stopped her hand, and she swore out loud. It wasn’t the fucking patriarchy at all. At all. It was just her. Her, her, her. Her inescapable self.
She had to think of it this way to think he would want her. That he would come into her office and close the door. That he would tell her that he knew, that he knew how she thought of him and why, that she had been doing it more and more, sometimes even in this very office, that she had been turning herself over to him in thought and body, and that now he would have it for himself. He knew, he knew.
The scenario dissolved into a collage of body and friction. He took her by the back of the neck and kissed her brutally, put a hand up her shirt like she was some seventeen-year-old, pinched her hard, not caring. He put the other hand up her skirt and felt and felt, sucking against her neck, reaching into her panties. He did it quick, entered her that way, her legs just barely parted, on the edge of her desk, both hands inside her bra now, biting her lips. Just as she was about to come, just as he was lowering her into the coffin of her own desire, ready to nail shut the lid and toss dirt on top, just as he was doing it piece by piece, locking her up, confining her there forever, he pulled back from her face and whispered nonsense to her, and this was what did it, what spread her all over the hotel room, into the sheets and the bedspread, head thrown back against the silken pillowcases, her soul floating out over the gathered lights in the far end of the room.
They glared at her with slit eyes.
Rebecca had tried, many times, to hold out in the fantasy, to stay there in her office with Bobby until he came too, maybe on her skirt, a mess she would have to clean up. But she couldn’t manage it. Her student had a disturbing tendency to morph into Pat at the moment of orgasm. To become her husband, smiling at her sadly from the chair behind her desk.
If she had not felt like such a cliché—if she was a different person—Rebecca thought she would be genuinely moved by the fact that it was becoming harder and harder not to weep hard after these orgasms, too.
She woke with a dull throbbing in her head: hangover or jet lag or both? The clock told her that it was eleven in the morning. Rebecca felt the horrid childish guilt of having overslept. She brought her hand to her face to brush her hair out of her mouth and smelled her own scent, like medium-rare filet mignon.
For the next three days, she vowed in the shower, she would focus solely on being a tourist. She would walk every neighborhood of the city, starting in the morning with the Rambla itself, pacing in concentric circles, visiting Park Güell in Gràcia, the shopping district in Eixample, Camp Nou in Les Corts, the Museu Maritimo and beaches in Barceloneta. She would buy beautiful clothes and take lovely photographs of the tall apartment buildings that stood flat-fronted on every corner, of the sail-shaped hotel on the man-made peninsula in the sea, of the hills that rose at the borders of her vision. She would save the two biggest draws—the Sagrada Familia and the Barri Gòtic itself—for her last full day.
And so Rebecca set out sightseeing. She bought a metro pass and rode the subway warily, clutching her purse with both hands on top of her knees. The trains were full of young people of every color, lovely and unlovely, poor and rich, and Rebecca was jealous of all of them: of the man coated in dust, perhaps twenty, with dark, dark, skin and a rucksack full of counterfeit handbags, and of the woman he sat beside, a beauty in a camel trench with olive skin, wavy hair, and a new designer purse flung casually over her shoulder.
They should have a conversation, Rebecca thought. They should get to know each other.
Rebecca chastised herself for envying the young as she paced the fairytale landscape of the Parc, admiring mosaic after mosaic, imagining a life for herself in one of the cottages that marked the entrance. She wove her way through the many columns and bought an overpriced beer from a sweating man installed in a grotto.
I’m not old, Rebecca thought, drinking. I’m not even forty yet.
The day was mercilessly hot but Rebecca decided to walk into Gràcia and shop. Her breasts felt heavy under her silk blouse, and she had sweat through the underarms.
Nothing in any of the shops fit. Struggling with straps in the dressing room of a store called, simply, V, Rebecca reverted to her Marxist defense mechanisms.
I don’t really want these clothes, she told herself. I want what they signify: youth, ease, joy. Things I can’t buy.
Pat always professed to love her body. He admired her in her new clothes and old. But he didn’t want her body, no matter how much he claimed to like it.
She had dinner at a restaurant on an old square. Her hunger surprised her, and she ravenously consumed the saltless bread, a small asparagus salad, and a roasted sausage topped with a poached egg. Only when she had swallowed the last bite did she realize that she had been shaking.
Back at Casa Lleó, Jordi was installed behind the low red desk.
“Bona tarda, senyora,” he said as she entered, not looking up.
His polite lack of interest hurt.
“Please, call me Rebecca,” she said, slumping by.
Jordi looked up. “Ah! It is you. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. Rebecca, of course.” He stood, walked around his desk and embraced her again: that tiny, painful miracle. He insisted on hearing the details of her day.
“Perhaps, if I can take the time off, I will show you around,” he said to Rebecca. He began to say something else, but the phone rang. He answered it immediately, trilling fast Catalan into the sleek black receiver.
She went upstairs, not letting herself think she was special, that he remembered her.
The Maritime Museum’s main attraction was a giant reconstruction of a sixteenth-century galley, the Admirals of the Juan de Austria, which had been instrumental in defeating the Turkish navy. It filled an enormous medieval hall in which Spanish ships had once been built, Rebecca read.
A space designed for one use, now dedicated to exhibiting reproductions of that lost use, Rebecca thought. Like me.
The fact that Pat was such a wonderful lover made her resent him more. He had this thing he did with his cock, nudging against what she imagined to be the upper wall of her pussy; it was remarkable, on the order of what she imagined heroin might be like.
But when they had sex now, it was quick and bad, a nasty thing she didn’t like to think about. Her on top, his hands automatically on her breasts, his eyes squeezed shut. Nothing would open them. He lashed her nipples with his tongue, whispered a few half-hearted nastinesses, and came with a choked grunt. She could, too, sometimes, if she hurried.
The days spun by. Everywhere she went was full of lovely people who didn’t give a damn for her. She saw every wonder the city could offer, tried to cross town on the Avenida Diagonal, wandered bemused around Camp Nou wondering what the fuss was about, paced fine shops. Rebecca knew better than to think she would find anything to buy. She understood now that she was just walking around inside her own mind, reviewing. She spent money only on food and entrance fees. She almost forgot that she had wanted to find someone to make love to.
Every evening at Casa Lleó, there was Jordi, promising future kindness. She didn’t believe in him anymore, either.
On the morning of her last day, Rebecca rose into a hallucinatory heat. She left her hotel without a set destination and got lost in the Barri Xinès. Prostitutes stood in front of every other apartment building, tall zaftig women in tight neon dresses and high white heels. Men in ikat shirts and white pants lurked behind them, eyeing Rebecca. Although she knew that these were the pimps, or something like it, she couldn’t imagine anyone forcing these women into sexual slavery. They were like Amazons from another planet, she thought, and was immediately embarrassed. Her lack of empathy was her own failing, she knew. Her fault.
Eventually she wandered out and found her way to the Sagrada Familia. She stood in line with the other Americans for two hours, letting the crowd move her, trying not to think. The people around her went in and out of the McDonald’s across the street, buying ice creams and complaining. A man behind her watched a romantic comedy on his phone, broadcasting tepid dialogue into her ear: “Sondra said what about my business trip?” When it was time to enter the cathedral, they picked up their cameras and squared their shoulders, as if readying for a fight.
The stone façade above the entrance was gnarled and frightening. For a moment Rebecca felt like a small child, afraid to enter the witch’s lair. But she let the crowd bear her forward, and then she was in the great high space. The walls were white but there was too much color to see. Rebecca walked in the rainbow lights from the stained glass windows, staring up. The white pillars looked like bones, like the remains of a race of giants. She didn’t try to decipher the stories embedded in the architecture.
In the center of the grand room was a cordoned-off rectangle of several humble rows of folding chairs facing the altar. This was where she belonged. Rebecca sat and closed her eyes.
A memory came back to her, strong enough to taste and feel: her first communion at Saint Anne’s Church in Linn, Texas. Aunt Clara in the first row, beaming as Rebecca walked up the aisle in the white lace dress and the mantilla that had belonged to her great-grandmother Flora. The crunch of the host in her teeth, the bitter wash of wine. And then the smell of Aunt Clara’s Guerlain perfume as she crushed her in a hug:
“My girl,” she said, “my girl.”
Her girl, now saved forever, initiated into the secrets of the faith.
No one would say those words to her again. No one would try.
God, Rebecca prayed, please heal my marriage. Heal my husband. Bring him back to me, give me back his good days, his kind hands and his loving eye. Give him these happinesses and make him want to share them with me. Give me the touch that I have missed and longed for, that I have craved for so long. Please give him back to me, the man I met that night at Gina’s, the disaffected beauty whose price was higher than rubies. The man for whom I gave my happiness.
She prayed herself into tears. Then, shaking, she turned to her flinty, pathetic desire.
God, give me a dream of sex with a man who wants me above all, who dreams of me. For whom touching me is his own dream.
Just the dream. Pat’s happiness and the dream. Was it too much?